Originally appeared in two parts on NewMusicBox.org (part 1, part 2), the web magazine for NewMusicUSA. Full text below.
Why did you start writing music? Now, what do you hope to accomplish? This year? This decade? By the end of your life?
In response to these questions, you might envision your music’s success according to a variety of measures:
- The awards, press, and publicity it receives
- The size of audiences it attracts
- The money it makes
- The joy you had in creating it
- The degree to which it meets a performer’s need or fits their skill level
- The experience shared by those in the room when it is performed
- The appraisal of your colleagues and other connoisseurs
- The social impact it has
Given your creativity, I’m sure you can come up with dozens of other metrics (and I’d be curious to hear them).
But it should be obvious that rarely, if ever, does a piece of music succeed across all these dimensions. Whenever we create music—whatever kind of music we write—we create something that is, at least in a few dimensions, unremarkable. Because individuals and groups value these various dimensions differently, no piece of music can be universal in its appeal or usefulness. Even Bach can be considered an also-ran by many people in many contexts. Thus, it is not intellectually or socially honest to ask, “Is Piece A better than Piece B?” without being able to identify the terms of comparison and explain why those terms matter.
It may seem sacrilegious to suggest that our prized repertoire is not inherently more worthy than other music. It may further seem counterintuitive to consider that the uninteresting and mediocre, or even the lackluster and substandard, may help us achieve our goals better than our lodestars—not just as cautionary tales but as exemplars themselves.
What does unremarkable music have to teach us about achieving our goals?
On a social level, we all share a fundamental need for validation and belonging. Though some composers may be content to write for themselves, most of us write music because we want to connect with those around us. Regardless of whether we get paid, a large part of what we do constitutes a gift to our collaborators and communities. We hope our music may inspire, challenge, stimulate, touch, or delight those who hear it. When that gift is poorly received or rejected, it stings.
This sting can be all the worse because many of us hold ideals of meritocracy and social justice. We believe that the good and the marginalized should have at least an equal seat at the table as the powerful and the privileged. Further, we want to believe that our music has merit. When that merit is ignored—particularly because of structural discrimination—we feel a righteous sense of injustice.
But from what table does that injustice exclude you? And from what power? Indeed, to whose aesthetic values are you trying to appeal? Or whose opinions are you trying to influence?
Often, our success as composers is only loosely based on how good our music is. And as inarguable as the benefits of power and privilege may be, they hardly constitute the only way to create and sustain communities. Further, the powerful and the praised are not the only communities worth serving or creating. (On these points, see also Elliot Cole’s article “Questions I Ask Myself.”)
This, then, is what unremarkable music can teach us socially: our success as composers, however you want to measure it, reflects most strongly the quality of the relationships that our music fosters. As humanity’s most ephemeral artifact, music may catalyze these relationships, but it cannot constitute their substance. Inasmuch as your music enables you to make others feel seen, treasured, cared for, and empowered, it can be said to be doing its job.
We are not fundamentally composers: we are human beings who use music to love others.
Likewise, other people are not fundamentally our audience: they are human beings with a rich capacity to receive and reciprocate that love.
Whenever we connect with other people through our music, it constitutes only a part of the whole relationship. Even our ties to the so-called “great composers” have just as much, if not more, to do with the myths and institutions built around them as they do with their music. Why, then, do we insist that our professional status must stand or fall primarily on our scores and recordings? You would never communicate with your mother only via sheet music. So, too, we can only fully cultivate our professional impact through the stories we tell, the meals we share, the conversations we have, the memories we make, and so on.
It should be obvious that you don’t have to be stereotypically successful to do this. Anyone—the 17-year-old YouTuber, the part-time production music composer, the obscure grad student, the band teacher from Montana—can make an impact through these means.
Still, when that impact goes viral, it can leave some observers bemused, jealous, or defensive—an honest reaction, inasmuch as its roots go deeper than common pettiness. These roots tap into the implicit messages behind certain measures of success, messages about which relationships matter more than others. For many of us, it requires a great struggle to uproot our uncritical embrace of these values. Does the New York Philharmonic and its milieu truly matter more than the seventh graders of the Springfield Middle School Band and their families? Is the only route to financial security truly through becoming an A-list Hollywood composer?
Yes, attaining such stereotypical success through “remarkable” music will constitute impact and bring influence, and these are not unworthy goals. Yet unremarkable music can be subversive and transformative in ways that music of “merit” cannot achieve. Think of punk rock. Think, too, of educational and film music. Despite all the flack that these genres receive in some quarters, many of us became composers because we loved John Williams’s Star Wars scores or Eric Whitacre’s choral works. That these examples are wildly successful in some spheres but disparaged in others serves only to underscore my point: whose opinion matters?
This disconnect between impact and merit brings to mind the common aphorism, “One person’s trash is another’s treasure.” It, in turn, resonates with a “philosophical conundrum” in ethics that Agnes Callard explains in a recent essay:
Morality requires we maintain a safety net at the bottom that catches everyone—the alternative is simply inhumane—but we also need an aspirational target at the top, so as to inspire us to excellence, creativity, and accomplishment. In other words, we need worth to come for free, and we also need it to be acquirable. And no philosopher—not Kant, not Aristotle, not Nietzsche, not I—has yet figured out how to construct a moral theory that allows us to say both of those things.
To this conundrum in music, I propose an answer akin to Captain Kirk’s solution to the Kobayashi Maru: Sidestep the issue. Rig the test. Embrace what is unremarkable about your music. Cherish it. Prize it. Stop trying to be all things to all people. Stop trying to convince the haters.
This isn’t to say we should stop fighting for a more perfect world (never!). Still, in this present, imperfect world on a Tuesday afternoon, to quote Obi-Wan Kenobi, “there are alternatives to fighting.”
Part 2 of this article will show how some of those alternatives emerge from identifying why unremarkable music bothers us personally.
In Part 1 of this article, I surveyed some common measures of success in music and discussed some observations on a social level of what music that doesn’t meet these measures might teach us. I proposed that one way to deal with these issues is to sidestep them—to embrace what is unremarkable about your music as an alternative to fighting the system. In Part 2, after examining unremarkable music from a personal level, I will argue that embracing the unremarkable in your music may empower you to achieve your goals.
Many of us have feelings about what is true, beautiful, or good in music which match the fervor most people hold only for politics or religion. I know I have on occasion felt viscerally offended by “bad” music.
Soberly considered, such reactions make no sense. It’s just sound. But it would be unwise to stifle your “musical conscience” on that account. That muse lives to remind you of your deepest musical values and messages. Perhaps ironically, identifying and owning your “musical conscience” is what allows you to embrace what is unremarkable in your own music—because it affirms that the unremarkableness of these features is not salient to the truth, goodness, and beauty you have to share.
But honoring your musical conscience can be challenging when surrounded by other artists, each with their own strong feelings and compelling visions. Even if you admire them, it is crucial to recognize that when other artists lambaste certain music—whether it’s by John Cage, Lennon, or Mackey or Joan Baez, Tower, or La Barbara—those strong feelings do not come from a place of “I am a dispassionate, knowledgeable observer whose opinions are objectively true.”
For the compliant and sensitive among us, this lesson would have been especially useful before college and grad school.
True, as my teacher Murray Boren put it, “attending school is an admission of ignorance.” Every undergraduate composer has skills they must learn and unfamiliar repertoire they should experience. We need these skills and experiences to help us grow and refine both our musical consciences and our ability to articulate their messages.
Unfortunately, though our professors did have plenty to teach us, we generally were not experienced enough to distinguish their wisdom from their opinions. In academia, as in all musical subcultures, we learn that “people like us do things like this,” as Seth Godin puts it. By no coincidence then, the music that academia generally prizes as “remarkable” sounds a lot like the music that academia generally writes.
As a consequence of this dynamic, our training often unintentionally (though in some shameful cases quite intentionally) delivered the message, “Your music is existentially not good enough.” (“People like us DON’T do things like that!”) Indeed, a colleague of mine once quipped that the professorial feedback he received in a composition seminar amounted to “The problem with your piece is that you’re writing the wrong piece.”
David Rakowski’s “buttstix” catalogs the kind of neurotic and narrow-minded expectations too many of us heard and internalized during our time as students. For those who have yet to attempt it, it is an empowering exercise to exorcise your own list of “shoulds.”
For my part, I internalized that good music “should”:
- use extended techniques and extreme registers
- look rhythmically and texturally intricate
- require virtuosic players, in both their technical dexterity and their musicianship and ensemble skills
- avoid tonal and metrical references and focus on timbre and gesture
- (or conversely) embrace the intersection of indie rock and post-minimalism
- push aesthetic, technical, and disciplinary boundaries
- not repeat itself within or between pieces
- create new forms and systems for each piece
- be obscure in its emotions and evasive about its extramusical connotations
- dismiss or transcend culture-specific musical symbols or topics
- have a sound intellectual justification for its pre-compositional plan or its compositional structures
- be itself virtuosic in requiring exceptionally long hours, decades of study, and arcane technical skills to create (anything easy or instinctive is dismissible or, at least, suspect)
Now, none of this aesthetic agenda is problematic in itself. In fact, it describes a lot of music I admire by many colleagues whom I deeply respect. Aspects of it even describe things I value in my own music. But this agenda has the same relationship to my musical conscience as Amy Sherald’s portrait has to the real Michelle Obama. Sherald’s painting may capture one essential facet of Obama, but no painting can ever capture her living whole. Likewise, when I pressure myself to conform to those dead expectations, I cut myself off from my living musical truth.
The despondency and insecurity that comes from being cut off from your musical truth is the emotional counterpart to being offended by bad music. In both cases, your musical conscience is telling you, “You do not belong here.”
It is further calling you: not to a wholesale rejection of your colleagues’ and mentors’ opinions, but to greater discernment and integrity of your own. To say with confidence, “This is what matters to me musically. By these features, I know in my gut I have succeeded in speaking my truth. Accordingly, I trust the value of what I have to share—that some people will treasure it, even though others will find it unremarkable.”
Recently, a composer friend and I attended the concert of a famous cellist. At the intermission, we were relieved to discover we both felt he was overhyped. Yes, his renditions of the solo cello literature were good—but no more so than any top cellist from any world-class conservatory. It was only at the end when he played his self-arranged encore that, for the first time, the music felt honest. At that moment, it became clear, “This is what people hear in your playing.”
For me, this recital was a prime example of the power of unremarkable music. It helped bring into focus the thoughts and feelings I have had while slowly emerging these past six months from my post-dissertation, post-graduation haze. From this example, as I have pondered what I want to accomplish musically and how my music can make a difference, I realized two things:
First, “I am not yet as good of a composer as I hope to be”—that part was already obvious, but it was the next part that was liberating—“but I am already a far better composer than I need to be.”
Second, “I already have all the compositional chops I need to make an impact in music.”
My unremarkable music is good enough to matter. It’s potent enough to form communities, to influence lives, and even potentially to make a living. And so is yours.